Readers determine what the essay means.
The meaning of an essay is not up to the writer.

Though writers tend to think of themselves as the final authority on what they meant, really they aren't. The writer is certainly the first reader of a work, and perhaps, though not always, will remain the closest reader.

Perhaps you bristle at this: I wrote it! You might say. Of course I know exactly what it means.

Compare this: how many typos have you made? Surely you think none, unless you let a typo remain for some purpose. Yet surely there are typos. Surely there are grammatical errors. Surely there are misplaced modifiers or ambiguous phrases. You, the writer, do not know everything about what have written. Unless meaning is some special kind of knowledge, different from the other things I just listed, then the same extends to the meaning of your writing. Meaning isn't yours, we might say. It's ours.

Consider this as well: when you think to yourself, talk to yourself, or when you read your own writing, you read in a particular voice, with a particular accent, with familiar inflections. When I read your words, I read in my voice, not in your voice. In fact, nobody reads in your voice; we all read in our own peculiar ways.

This makes it even more difficult to maintain that the writer is the authority on how a work should be read. A writer might make suggestions, using punctuation perhaps, or other sorts of cues, as to how I should read their words. But I cannot be compelled to read in a particular way; there is no canonical reading of your words, even by you! You speak in a different voice to the one in which you read.

I say all of this to dislodge the feeling that your words have specific meaning, and that you are the ultimate determiner of that meaning. In the end, readers determine meaning. So, in the end, you, as writer, must respect your reader above all else.

* * *

When we write, we often overlook simple mistakes, especially when we do not seek to discover the the errors in our writing. Though the writing is our own, though we stand metaphorically closest to the work, we fail to recognise everything about what we have produced. If, say, I review my work to evaluate the content, then I will not likely discover as many spelling or grammatical errors as when I read with that aspect of the work in mind. An editor, whose role is to find these sorts of errors, will discover things about my writing that, even though I created the text, I will not usually discover on my own.

I can describe the ins and outs of my text when quizzed about certain aspects of its content. But likely, if quizzed about where there are grammatical errors in the text, I will not be able to answer; one would imagine that if I knew about the grammatical errors, I would have already fixed them.

If my aim were to produce grammatically correct prose, if maybe I were writing a style guide, then I would attend to grammatical errors more closely. I would, perhaps, be able to identify where I introduced illustrative errors on purpose. Perhaps I introduced an error in order to demonstrate a point about readers' attentiveness (there is one such error in the first paragraph of this example, where the word "the" appears twice in a row). In this case, I know about certain errors in the text because of my purposes --- because I have attended to the text in a certain, purposeful way.

So though I am in some sense closest to the text --- I am usually the person who is most familiar with my own purposes and my own intentions --- it does not immediately follow that I am the best judge of certain aspects of the text. In fact, I am sometimes in a poor position to judge the work, for example in finding grammatical errors, given my content-oriented purposes. I can only attend to certain aspects of my own thoughts and work, just as I can only attend to certain aspects of others' behaviour and expression, and always only for certain purposes on any given occasion.

Furthermore, when others read and comment on our work, they are able to point out aspects of our ideas that we might not have immediately recognised. They indicate where our expressions are unclear, or where more development would help the reader. And as we develop further, we recognise new, novel aspects of our own work that we had not previously recognised. Again, this process demonstrates that, even though we are in some sense closest to our own work, we do not wield a distinct kind of authority over the thoughts and ideas that the work contains, or over its potential applications.

* * *

In the next reading, think about how the writer tells the whole story in (at least) two different ways. What is the significance of doing this? What does this tell you about the interpretation of the events he details? At the same time, look for structural clues to the essay's arrangement and consider how differently the author's journey might have seemed to a different narrator telling the same story.

Last modified: Monday, 16 July 2018, 11:00 PM